What the story of Catholic persecution in Britain can teach us about populism and prejudice

This not-so-distant mirror shows how political anxieties are displaced on to minorities.

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Three hundred years ago, the United Kingdom (then including the whole of Ireland) was – like most European countries – a strictly “confessional” state; that is, one in which religious minorities were subject to varying degrees of legal disability. If you did not attend Anglican public worship and sign your name to various required statements and oaths, you could not hold civic office, receive a university education, practice the law and a good many other things besides. But the system pressed most heavily on Roman Catholics. Apart from the fact that Catholic worship was technically prohibited, the law encouraged and rewarded informers who could identify illegally operating priests and denied Catholics the right to inherit property or even to buy land.

In Ireland, discrimination was even more severe. Punitive fines for lawbreakers were a welcome source of public revenue. There had been no executions of Catholic clergy since Charles II’s reign, when the fraudulent claims about a “Popish Plot” made by the appalling Titus Oates resulted in the barbaric torture and killing of more than a dozen innocent people. No actual persecution, you might say, and the strict implementation of the “penal laws” was patchy in England and Scotland and almost unworkable in detail in Ireland. But the bare fact was that the status of a Roman Catholic in Britain or Ireland was as bad as, if not rather worse than, that of a Christian in the Ottoman Empire at the time.

Catholics could not be full citizens, and – on a strict interpretation of the law – could not really practise their faith at all (whereas Christians in the Levant could at least maintain public places of worship). Successive crises, real or imaginary, had led to countless extra petty restrictions. A modest relaxation of the laws in 1778 led to the Gordon Riots of 1780, which in terms of their death toll were the most serious civil disturbances in British history.

Antonia Fraser’s narrative takes us from the Riots to the Catholic Emancipation legislation of 1829. Part of the fascination of the story is the way it reminds us that aspects of our contemporary political culture that we think of as uniquely awful were unmistakably at work during this period, if on a rather more local scale. The sheer ignorance of the 1780 “No Popery” mobs (people who, in Daniel Defoe’s nice phrase, “do not know whether it [Popery] be a man or a horse”), the hysterical vitriol against those supposed to be “unpatriotic”, the vicious personalising of political debate and the blind anger against anyone pointing out unwelcome facts and looking for pragmatic solutions – all these have their contemporary analogues; although we have yet to see a modern prime minister fighting a duel (as the Duke of Wellington did) with an opponent whose abuse had gone beyond a bearable limit.

The background, too, is dishearteningly familiar. From the late 16th century onwards, the activities of a small number of Isis-like radicals and the bloodthirsty rhetoric of some prominent religious leaders had led to all Roman Catholics being classed as enemies of the state, people whose loyalties were given to an alien power and who were actively encouraged by their religion to “equivocate”, to deceive their guileless Protestant neighbours (a stereotype that Shakespeare alludes to in the Porter’s speech in Macbeth). No amount of blameless conformity could shake this mythology; not even the (irregular) presence of Catholics in the armed forces, or the Papacy’s final recognition of the Protestant succession in England.

If nothing else, the story of anti-“Popery” in Britain is an object lesson in how a narrative of the murderous religious or ideological alien is created and sustained, both deliberately and unthinkingly, even in the face of ample evidence. The fact that countries such as France and Spain had much the same narrative about Protestants is not exactly an excuse – as at least some 18th-century writers realised. The Cambridge cleric Peter Peckard, an early champion of the anti-slavery movement, was arguing in the 1750s that linking civic rights and liberties to a particular religious profession was simply to reproduce the supposed abuses of the inquisitorial “Popery” that was so violently condemned.

But such voices were few indeed in the 18th century. It was the French Revolution above all that changed the climate in such a relatively short time. Continental Catholics were now victims of anarchistic terror; and doors were flung open in Britain to welcome refugees, even members of the hated and despised monastic orders. In another anticipation of more recent times, the British people turned out to be more compassionate and more sensible than one might have expected from the violent nonsense regularly spouted in the public media of the day.

There was also increasingly a pragmatic reason for looking afresh at the problem. Earlier generations had assumed that security required repression and surveillance; but the smouldering unrest in Ireland in the 1790s, when Britain faced a major threat from revolutionary France, made it clear that other tactics would be needed: perhaps security would be better served by giving Irish Catholics a proper stake in the society they were part of, a reason for supporting its structures rather than rejecting them? And in the decades ahead, the great political elders shifted one by one, slowly and reluctantly, towards an acceptance of the need for reform. Wellington and eventually Peel became – at a real personal and political cost – advocates for change.

Fraser’s narrative skilfully interweaves the progress of activism in Ireland – painting a deeply sympathetic picture of the great Daniel O’Connell, “the Liberator” – and pragmatism in England, as emancipation gradually came to appear as the only outcome that offered justice and stability.

The obstacles were still formidable, and Fraser (as the title of her book implies) has a particular interest in the role of the monarch – or rather the Prince Regent for much of the period. George IV’s belated discovery of a conscience about his coronation oath to defend the Church of England, combined with the dim-witted mulishness on the subject of most of his ducal brothers, drove Wellington to distraction. It is hard to know how far anything at all was going on in George IV’s head beyond his personal soap opera of delusional heroic posturing; but the record of Wellington’s struggles to persuade him to accept the inevitable is a rather sobering reminder that the power of the Crown at this period was no mere constitutional shadow.

This book has all the liveliness and clarity of Antonia Fraser’s other historical writing. It is unashamedly old-fashioned narrative history, not overly concerned with statistics or analysis, but solidly factual and even-handed without being dull. Its significance, though, is more than this alone might suggest. I have already underlined the way in which this not-so-distant mirror might help us understand the processes by which political anxieties are displaced on to minorities and patchy historical memories can be frozen into a story that “everyone” knows to be true (as the Gunpowder Plot became the defining story of Catholic violence).

But we are often told these days that we have become increasingly illiterate about our own constitution because we have forgotten the process by which it took shape. We can lazily assume that the way we understand the rule of law or the rights of minorities or the limits to the Crown’s prerogative is a given, something so obvious no one would ever question it, part of a set of timeless British values. And when that attitude is entrenched, paradoxically, it is a lot easier to let these things be eroded bit by bit for supposed short-term convenience. Caring about these things involves a willingness to remember why and how we found them necessary.

Fraser tells us a story of how an unsustainable and ludicrously unfair system supported by populist hysteria was challenged both by its victims – with, in O’Connell’s case, impressive political sophistication – and by a political leadership prepared (eventually) to risk its reputation in the name not of ideology but of common sense about the common good. In short, we learned how to disentangle lawful democracy from mob rule, how to grow out of paranoia towards a realism that sought to build security through participation, and how to defend political consensus against the arbitrary prejudices of monarchs. As with the abolition of the slave trade (a process extending over very much the same period) it is a story that is worth telling.

When all’s said and done (in regard to both these reforms) about mixed motives, surviving injustices, unplanned effects and so on – and granted even the ultimate and tragic failure of emancipation to bring justice to Ireland – it is worth telling because it traces how we learn (and reminds us that we still need to learn) about the ways in which societies become that little bit more humane, just and dependable for their citizens. And if, as we have seen, some of our worst contemporary political habits are not after all signs of a uniquely 21st-century malaise, perhaps we can be cautiously hopeful that the critical and realistic political sense that brought about Catholic emancipation still has a life in British politics. l

Rowan Williams is an Anglican cleric, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

The King and the Catholics: the Fight for Rights 1829
Antonia Fraser
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 336pp, £25

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit